US natgas futures drop 3 pct after six straight winning sessions

* Front month below Tuesday's 2012 high

* Nuclear power plant outages still strong

* Cooler weather on tap for much of the country

* Coming up: EIA oil data Wednesday, EIA gas data Thursday

By Eileen Houlihan

NEW YORK, Oct 3 (Reuters) - U.S. natural gas futures slid n early 3 pe rcent early W ednesday a mid p rofit-taking a fter gaining more than 24 percent ov er s ix straight wi nning se ssions.

On Tuesday the front - month contract rose to its highest mark this year a mid forecasts for cooler weather in the coming days and strong nuclear power plant outages.

But many traders remained concerned that gas priced at well above $3 per million British thermal units will continue to lose market share to coal for power generation.

Still, producers that shut in wells when prices fell easily below $3 could again be tempted to hook up wells that had been drilled but not flowing.

As of 9: 11 a.m. EDT (13 11 GMT), front-month November natural gas futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange

were at $3.437 p er mmBtu, down 9. 4 c ents, or ne arly 3 per cent. The contract rose as high as $3.546 on Tuesday, i ts bes t mark since last December.

The National Weather Service's six- to 10-day outlook issued on T uesd ay again called for t emperatures b elow normal or much b e low n o rmal for nearly the entire nation, with normal or above-normal readings only in the West and south Texas.

On the nuclear front, outages on Wednes day totaled 15, 9 00 megawatts, or 16 percent of U.S. capacity, u p from 15,2 0 0 MW out on Tu esda y, 13, 8 0 0 MW out a year ago and a five-year outage rate of about 15,3 0 0 MW.


Last week's gas storage report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) showed domestic gas inventories rose in the previous week by 80 billion cubic feet to 3.576 trillion cubic feet. It was the biggest weekly injection so far this year.

Record heat this summer helped trim a huge storage surplus relative to last year from its late-March high near 900 bcf, but traders expected builds to continue to pick up as weather loads fade.

Domestic gas inventories are still at record peaks for this time of year and likely to end the stock-building season above last year's all-time high of 3.852 trillion cubic feet.


Storage graphic:


At 82 percent full, stocks hovered at levels not normally reached until the second week of October and still offered a huge cushion that can help offset any weather-related spikes in demand or supply disruptions from storms.

Early injection estimates for this week's EIA report range from 55 bcf to 75 bcf versus a year-earlier build of 101 bcf and the five-year average increase for the week of 78 bcf.


Drilling for natural gas has been in a nearly steady decline for the last 11 months, sliding by 19 rigs last week to a 13-year low of 435, Baker Hughes data showed.


Rig graphic:


But while pure gas drilling has become largely uneconomical at current prices, gas produced from more-profitable shale oil and shale gas liquids wells has kept output stubbornly high.

EIA gross natural gas production data on Friday showed July output climbed 0.4 percent from June to 72.58 bcf per day, not far below January's record high of 72.74 bcfd.

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

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